Priscilla parks in Tampa, Orlando

By : Erik R. Caban
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Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the joyous drag queen musical, has packed up its glitter for a nationwide tour with stops at Tampa’s David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts April 9-14 and Orlando’s Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre April 16-21. The show is no-doubt the gayest offering in Florida this season.

Searing put-downs, sequins and pop-music standards fuel this outrageous buddy/road-trip comedy. This musical spectacle, based on the 1994 cult film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, tells the uplifting story of a trio of friends on a road trip of a lifetime, who hop aboard a battered old bus searching for love and friendship in the middle of the Australian outback and end up finding more than they could ever have dreamed.

Priscilla the musical boasts over 500 dazzling, 2011 Tony Award-winning costumes and features a hit parade of dance-floor favorites including “It’s Raining Men,” “Finally” and “I Will Survive.”

Watermark recently caught up with Bryan West who plays “Adam/Felicia” in this undisputed high-camp queer classic to chat about the musical, doing drag for the first time and his message to LGBT youth.

WATERMARK: How did you get your start in theater?

BRYAN WEST: Originally, I was in a German pop-band for about three years, called FiveNY.  I was living part time in New York and part time in Germany. I always wanted to live in Los Angeles, so after that, I picked up and moved over there. I worked on commercials, writing music and other different projects. I saw an ad in the paper for the musical Hairspray when it was auditioning for its first national tour. So, I went to the open call and that’s how I got my first shot at theater.

How long have you been paying the role of “Adam/Felicia”?

Since January, when the national tour kicked off. Before that, I was the understudy on Broadway. When the show opened in March of 2011, I had been part of the ensemble. When this opportunity came along, I was like, “I love that role; it’s so much fun!” I love the show and wanted to travel.

Have you ever performed in drag before?

No. Before I went to audition for the Broadway version, I went to Payless and bought these high-heeled boots, since I knew they made you audition in heels. [Laughs] Late at night, I would walk my dog in these boots to get used to it. I remember my neighbor came out of his door one night and saw me. I had to tell him, “I swear, it’s for a job.” [Laughs]  “I’m rehearsing for a job right now.” It paid off though; I was much more comfortable dancing and stuff once I got in there for the audition.

Was it difficult to maneuver in the costumes?

A lot of the costumes are set pieces, really. They’re heavy. You can learn the choreography and everything but once you put the costumes on, your presence has to be ten times bigger to allow for the choreography to even show. It’s definitely a learning process.

I read that you said that the sequence is dangerous.
Everyday I come home and there’s a new scrape or a new cut. I’m always bleeding or bruised. You don’t even notice it during the show because your adrenaline is pumping. After the fact, I’m like, “I don’t even know how I got that but I’m pretty sure it was from a sequin or jewel of some kind.” Theater can be dangerous. It’s a contact sport. [Laughs]

From “Corny Collins” and “Link” in Hairspray to Wicked, did you ever think you’d be playing such a character?

It’s really cool. Before this, I always understudied the ingenue; like Prince Charming  or something. It’s great because with this role, I get to throw all caution to the wind and be a fun, crazy-costumed character. I was a little self-conscious at first with the whole drag thing but once I got it on, the barrier between me and whatever insecurity I was having disappeared. It turned more into “I get to be whoever I want to be.” It’s empowering.

What made you want to play this character?

I love the movie, first of all. I’ve watched it many times since I was a kid. It’s so funny, different and weird. The script is hysterical. When I got involved with the production and the auditioning process, I was worried they were going to water it down but the same guy, Stephan Elliott, that wrote the movie, wrote the musical. He’s kept all of my favorite parts. It’s something that’s never been done before. I was in Wicked when they started the auditions and Wicked is one of those shows that when you get cast, you never leave it because it’s such a great job. But I really wanted to break out of the box and try something new.

What’s your favorite part of this production?

I think the show in general. I’ve been a part of it for over two years. And every night in my dressing room, I look forward to the show. The audience is right there with you. The love we feel from the audience, hearing them cheering us on; it’s just good for the soul.  The interaction with the audience is my favorite part.

Are there any differences from the movie version?

It’s a little more cartoon-ish than the movie. The movie had a kind-of dark overtone but with a musical that wouldn’t work as well. A lot of the scenes, like when I paint the bus after a slur has been spray-painted on it, we sing “Color the World,” making it a fantastical and jolly moment. You need to do that with a stage production to keep things moving and not to dwell on the dark side. It’s a little more light-hearted. We definitely touch on serious issues but we still keep it upbeat.

Were you worried about stepping into such a well-known, iconic role?

No, because I felt I knew the film so well. I thought Guy Pearce was so brilliant in the movie. I kind of studied him and I try to pay homage to him. I even picked up the accent after a lot of practicing.

The movie is known for its empowering message – especially to gay audiences. Have you found that the stage production serves as an educational tool as well as an entertainment outlet?

When we were in Minneapolis, I had a mother and her twelve year old son come to the stage door and while I was signing her Playbill she said, “thank you for being a role model for my son. It’s great to see you fully playing that character on stage.” She went on to say how her son is having a rough time in school and after reading my bio in the Playbill – in which I reference “It Gets Better” – she said it’s really inspiring. I never expected “Adam/Felicia” to give someone confidence like that, so it was really cool.

It really caught me off-guard. It’s amazing.

You mentioned your message to LGBT youth in the Playbill. What was your experience growing up gay, coming out and growing into a successful gay man like?

I’ve always been in entertainment, so it was never a foreign world to me. When I was much younger, growing up in Baltimore, I felt like I was the only one so I kept it a secret. I got picked on a lot. That was tough but in my case, I knew I was talented, so I really clung to that. In high-school, I went to the School of Arts. By then, it didn’t even matter anymore. Not long after high-school, I came out to my parents and stuff. They’re supportive. Like anybody, it’s a journey.

More Info:
What: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
When: Tampa’s David A. Straz Center, through April 14 and Orlando’s Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, April 16-21.
Tickets: StrazCenter.org or OrlandoVenues.net

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